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By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Beyond the Pale

Posted By on June 30, 2009

Beyond the Pale
by Elana Dykewomon
Press Gang Publishers.

"Whenever you tell the story of one woman, inside is another."
(p. 17)

 

Elana Dykewomon was one of my early hero’s –shero’s I think we called them then.  Maybe some of you are too young to remember……well, actually many of you are probably too young to remember.  Perhaps some of you are more newly out, and our lesbian herstory is such a fragile tale.  So let me tell you how it was for me when I was first coming out in the late 1970’s.  Elana Dykewomon — well, doesn’t her name say it all? — was a strong, proud, out and outrageous lesbian in a world where lesbians where only beginning to exist in our fullness.  She was a writer and a poet and outspoken about the issues affecting women’s and lesbians’ lives.  She is the author of three previous books, with title’s like Riverfinger Women ( — I will now admit, it took me a while to realize the significance of that title — ), They Will Know Me By My Teeth, and Fragments from Lesbos.  The copies I have are dog-eared, and were self published and printed by early lesbian-feminist presses that have (sigh) gone the way of flannel shirts and "wimmin"-only collectives.  They are all stamped on the back "to be sold and shared with women only" and "for lesbians only" and to this day, Elana,  I have kept my promise.
Most of my early hero’s have disappeared, some have died.  I am always relieved to find one of my early role models, alive and healthy and still doing their art.  With no offense intended to all of those who have taken other paths in this post-modern age of diffuse identities, I always breathe a sigh of relief to find one who is, yes, still a lesbian, and whose work reflects that experience.  Elana, who is a past editor of Sinister Wisdom, has produced this book, like her others, through an alternative press.

Elana Dykewomon is the author of an extraordinary novel of lesbian life.  Beyond the Pale tells the story of four courageous Jewish lesbians who immigrated from Russia at the turn of the last century, at a time when, in Elana’s own words, "American was a balloon filling with the sighs of immigrant women." (p. 246),And where "….in New York there was no room to plant cucumbers, only myths. "(p. 255)
Before I tell you about this remarkable book, I want to share one personal  truth — generally, I hate lesbian fiction.  I mean, mostly I just think it is really bad stuff, and my time is very valuable to me.  But when the fourth friend said, "You’ve got to pick this one up, Ari, it is really good.", I buckled.  From the very opening page, I was hooked, laying up at night reading way past my bedtime, and counting the minutes till my son and partner would sleep, so I could snuggle into the rhythyms of Elana’s words.
Listen: "The first time I crossed her threshold, the mixture of scents went right up my nose and I sneezed for ten minutes……Every inch  of wall and rafter was hung with bunches of herbs and what I used to think of as weeds. Green, ochre, and lavender bits drifted in the shafts of light that penetrated the  twine-wrapped stems….I was afraid of the spirits in the herbs…..[so e]veryday that I went there…..I would stand in the doorway and shout: "It is I, Gutke, the apprentice to Milcah!" so they would know I was under her protection……I was right, of course — there were spirits in the herbs. The herbs became my companions and when I was alone I started to talk to them." (pp. 29-30)
Elana’s use of language and her finely-tuned story-telling create an absorbing tale.  There is a simplicity of plot here, — if I were to outline the entire story there are maybe 3 or 4 events that take place — but it is the skill of the story teller that lets the reader feel  the tickle of the herbs under one’s nose, and the oppressive heat of summer in the lower east side.  It is art that makes us flinch from the
smell of the steerage latrines.

Beyond The Pale is a Jewish novel.  Elana’s grasp of Yiddish rhythm is remarkable, and left me more than once yelling to my Jewish partner, "Listen to this, honey, listen." I heard my grandparents in her sentences, her use of questions that one asks to no one in particular.  "I always start with an onion," says Pesah. "What Jew doesn’t? (p. 17)." Gutke thinks, "If  Golde liked to touch the bodies of women, and I like to think of her touching them, what difference could it possibly make?" (p. 65) Wisdom is enveloped in simple sentences that become proverbial turths, "A midwife has to learn to bear trouble even when it comes close." (p. 55)
The book opens with the birth of one of the main characters, being midwifed by another one of the main characters. 
Listen to sounds of birthing: "Always you learn to hold your suffering.  How else?….. Suddenly Miriam’s eyes are very wide, her breathing hard as a blacksmith’s hammer …..[Miriam] gives a shriek. "My kishke’s — it’s scaping them out!"…..but in this moment Gutke hears nothing.  This is the best, this absolute silence before the baby cries. And the cry itself, a new voice, a tiny shofar announcing its own first year." [After the child is born Gutke says aloud,] "You have a  baby girl….so ugly that if you show her to the river, it will stay frozen and spring won’t come this year." That should keep the evil eye off this long, good-looking child, Gutke thinks." (pp. 5-7)

Beyond the Pale is also a lesbian novel.  How can it be that I, a long time student of both Jews and lesbians, have never thought, really thought, about the Jewish lesbians who lived in the Pale of Russia, — where my forebears lived –,the Jewish lesbians who made their way alone across the wide ocean.  How many times have I stared at pictures of Jewish immigrants, or stood in the huge concourse that is Ellis Island, and imagined my great-grandparents, searched for faces that look like mine? How can it be that I never once thought: lesbians?  Lesbian lovers secretly holding hands under long skirts, married lesbians unknown to even themselves. Lesbians building community under the scrutinizing eyes of Cossacks, and within the suffocating confines of small religious villages. Of course, it is the very nature of strict gender codes that allowed lesbians guaranteed time together in women’s only enclaves.  Elana has brought these women and their communities to life.
Listen: "Rose was short and round and dark.  When I curled around her at night I was curling around a lit coal….when I curled around Rose I was was the one warming my hands, a homeless girl at a trash can fire…" (p. 255)
Imagine the excitement of meeting with others like yourself for the first time. (Remember?) In times much more restrictive than ours, without language or context to guide them, Elana shows us how women came together and built support systems and homes in small Russian cities, and yes, in labor unions in this country.
One of the most exciting surprises of this book is the inclusion of a passing woman.  When she becomes a citizen of this country she is known only as Mr. Greenbaum!!! — What a hoot! Of course.  Elana, I’ve long known about passing women, and have known me one or two, but I forget they too came over from the Old Country, first class or on steerage, hiding behind mustaches, blatantly holding hands with their wives.  Today in my Queer Studies classes we will argue whether indeed, Mr. Greenbaum was a lesbian hiding for convenience, or a transgendered man (woman, lesbian?), but at the turn of the last century without language to guide them, or classrooms in which to argue gender politics, there was Mr. and Mrs. Greenbaum — my Jewish lesbian ancestors!

I identified, of course, with the orphans in this story, women who left their homeland, their families, their language, and all that was familiar.  I understand Gutke’s emotions as she walks through the streets of her village that was full of Cossacks, holding her skirt up. "I remembered, " she says, "how I thought less of my mother for looking straight ahead in life, never turning to the left or right.  I wondered if she could she me, swallowing my arrogance." (p. 61)  My story takes place on the streets of Brooklyn, with a different kind of "Cossack", but I too have swallowed my childhood arrogance, and wonder if my mother can see me.

There is one last thing I must mention — fat. Yes, fat.  Elana is a long time fat activist, and she has not written our bodies out of history.  She has given us beautiful large women characters, and sensuous descriptions of round Jewish women’s bodies, without once feeling like a lesson in political correctness.
Listen: "Pesah Kohn ….. was the most wonderful woman I ever saw.  She was twice, maybe three times as wide as my mother, and a least a head taller, her hips filling the whole doorway. She smelled of sweet bathwater and roasted chicken all the time….."
And in a sweet interaction as the lovers Rose and Chava lay restless on New Years’ eve, when Rose admonishes Chava to sleep, Chava thinks, "Sleep, she told me, as if she knows everything……" and when Chava’s stomach grumbles and Rose rubs her belly she says, "You never eat enough, Chava." Chava responds, "I eat all I can. Besides, I like feeding you better." Rose says, "You make me fat." And Chava says, " I love you fat,"….scooping Rose’s belly under her palm. (p. 255)

In case I’ve led you to believe this is a simple love story, let me forewarn you — there are frighteningly graphic descriptions of programs, poverty, and rape.  Elana writes in a raw open-eyed candor; some images will remain with me for the rest of this life.  I imagine her body encircling her computer, typing, her eyes damp with tears. This novel is not predictable; I was seduced and lulled into a romance, and like so many romances it left me furious and exhausted, and on my parched lips the endless Jewish question, "why?"
This novel is also filled with wonderful images of Jewish women organizing unions at the turn of the century.  It is a personal, and deeply internal view of sweatshops, and ethnic relationships, that represents the best of historical fiction. The knowledge and snapshots of a moment in history is brought to light in a compelling and moving motion picture, where you can hear the young girls laugher, feel their footsteps on the cement, and yet, you the reader, know more about where they come from and where they are headed then they can ever know.  Studying union organizing is not the same as spending the day gluing boxes with Chava.

One of my favorite paragraphs is Gutke’s self-reflection. "When we consider our youth, we see only ourselves and the way the world unfolds in front of us. We are full figures walking among the cut-outs of buildings and people, never knowing exactly what’s behind them — and we don’t care.  But gradually we grow smaller and smaller, until we are part of the landscape in which we move, and then we find others all around us, moving, becoming part of time." (p. 65)
Beyond the Pale has been nominated for two "lammies", the Lambda Book Awards, for Best Lesbian Fiction, and Best Small Press awards.  There is no doubt in this writer’s mind that this novel should win.  Jewish lesbians have never been so visible; I have found my ancestors and feel proud.
On the back cover of They Will Know Me By My Teeth, Elana Dykewomon’s collection of stories from 1976, is a quote from a character in one of the stories.  It says, "You never know what a dyke’s gonna turn out to be when she grows up, do you?" No, you never do, Elana, but some of us grow up real fine, big and round, and out to our edges.  We find our voices clear and steady, holding fast the knowledge of the Pale, we move across a vast ocean and beyond, with the wisdom of Solomon and Courage of Miriam, staking our claims to a world not yet ours.  How else should it be?